Nightingale Road, Hitchin, Herts SG5
A design of the 1970s, replacing the predecessor church of 1901, which survives alongside as the parish hall. The buildings occupy a prominent townscape position at the entrance to the Hitchin Conservation Area. The church is notable for a number of artworks by Theodore Kern.
In 1890 a room in Nightingale Road was used for the celebration of Mass for local Catholics. This was served by priests from the Institute of St Andrew at Barnet, a missionary order founded by the convert Fr George Bampfield, which established a number of missions in Hertfordshire.
In 1899 a parcel of land on the corner of Nightingale Road and Grove Road was acquired for £320 with the help of a local benefactor, the convert Miss Ada Louisa Jackson. A red brick church in the Early English style was built, opening in 1901. The architect is given in some sources (e.g. Lambert, p.10) as R. Purdie of Blean, near Canterbury, but this is almost certainly a misprint for A. E. Purdie, the well-known Catholic architect whose offices were by then in Canterbury. The builders were the local firm of Messrs Frank Newton. The church was solemnly opened by Cardinal Vaughan on 26 January 1902.
Towards the end of 1902 two priests from the Society of St Edmund at Pontigny arrived at Hitchin, driven from France by anti-clerical laws. They established a school here.
In 1904 a gallery was built at the west end of the church, increasing the seating capacity to about 150. A bell tower was added around the same time.
The Catholic population of Hitchin grew between the wars, driven by industrial expansion at Letchworth. In 1925 the order of St Edmund was absorbed by the Augustinians of the Assumption, who took over the running of the parish in 1926. In 1933 the church was extended by Fr Wilfrid Manser AA, with the building of a longer sanctuary. Fr Manser was a Catholic convert and the first English priest of the Assumptionist order. He died in 1950 and is commemorated in two stained glass windows in the old church.
By the early 1970s the number of Catholics in Hitchin had risen to 2,500, about 10% of the town’s population. The parish had quite outgrown the church of 1901, and during the time of Fr Joseph Scally (1968-73) plans were put in hand to build a new one, on the site of the old school building alongside the original church. One scheme prepared by the Hitchin architect Wallace Hunt proposed an octagonal design, with a high pitched roof lit by circular windows. In the event the architect for the new church was Derek Goss, a parishioner, of Hamilton Associates. This was opened in 1977 and consecrated by Cardinal Hume on 18 December 1978. The new church won a design award from North Hertfordshire District Council in 1977.
The building presents a somewhat fortified external appearance, with no visible fenestration. It is square on plan, with top-lit projections on either side. The building is faced with local red brick and has a steeply-pitched pyramidal roof with overhanging eaves, clad with concrete pantiles. A glazed link acts as an entrance lobby and connection with the old church, which now serves as a parish hall.
The building has a steel frame construction. The interior is a single large square space, with the sanctuary placed in the southeast corner. This is discreetly top-lit, as are other projecting areas around the perimeter. The space is dominated by the pyramidal roof form, clad with stained pine boarding, and held together by iron tension rods. The perimeter wall surfaces are faced in plaster.
The altar and tabernacle shelf behind it are of Travertine marble, and belong to the 1977 rebuilding. In front of the sanctuary, the Travertine marble font dates from 2000 (given in memory of Thomas Woods). In the diagonally opposite corner to the sanctuary is the large pipe organ, by Saxon Tate (according to O’Dell).
The new church is notable for a number of furnishings and artworks by Theodore Kern, a parishioner and émigré artist and sculptor from Vienna. These include a low-relief wooden Virgin and Child inscribed ‘laetare’, wooden figures of St Andrew and St Michael, a gilded statue of the Virgin and Child, two large paintings of the Man of Sorrows and the Madonna and Child (with St Anne?) and the ink-washed framed Stations of the Cross. Kern was also responsible for the two windows of 1950 in the old church dedicated to the memory of Fr Manser and depicting Our Lady and St Joseph with the Christ child, and probably also the adjoining window to Henry and Etheldreda Sell (c1952), depicting the Sacred Heart.
Architect: A. E. Purdie; Derek Goss of Hamilton Associates
Original Date: 1901
Conservation Area: Yes
Listed Grade: Not Listed